Meg Daley Olmert

Meg Daley Olmert

Made For Each Other

The Hug Felt Round the World

Why the Queen didn't flinch when Michelle hugged her.

Posted Apr 14, 2009

What happened when Michelle Obama hugged the Queen of England?

a. Her hand turned to ice
b. The Royal Guard wrestled her to the floor
c. Phillip fainted
d. The Queen felt a mysterious compulsion to return the gesture

The answer and its reason were both unthinkable 20 years ago. Yes, it's true. The Queen of England put her arm around the First Lady and Mrs. Obama put her arm around the Queen. Royal watchers couldn't believe their eyes or ears when they heard Buckingham Palace describe the encounter as "a mutual and spontaneous display of affection." If The London Times is correct, it's been almost 20 years since the queen has felt the common touch. That brief encounter came when the Australian PM placed his hand on Her Majesty's back during an official tour. For that intimate impudence he was mis-maligned as, "Lizard of Oz" when the poor guy was actually following the ancient mammalian biological protocol that demands we reach out and touch each other.

The chemistry of connection that rules Queens and commoners centers around a brain hormone called oxytocin. This molecule, which is made in the hypothalamus and released throughout the brain and body, produces labor contractions and lactation--two major traits that define us as mammals. About fifteen years ago, it was also found to exert a potent influence over all the brain centers that control emotion and behavior-making us not just mammals, but social mammals. Oxytocin quiets the brain's fear and stress circuitry while activating the neural networks that fill us with a sense of confidence and curiosity that makes us want to approach and interact with others. It also provides the sense of relaxation and belonging we feel when our touch is appreciated and returned. This is the powerful social brain chemistry that royal protocol has stifled for hundreds of years.

Fortunately the Queen has instinctively found a way to keep her oxytocin flowing. She is famously surrounded by her beloved corgies and is happily relaxed on the back of a horse. Contact with dogs has been proven to almost double oxytocin levels in humans. It may be bad form to consider the rhythmic, repetitive massage-like stimulation the royal pelvic nerves receive while riding to the hounds, but it's good science to say that such intimate contact releases oxytocin, even in a Queen.

Did I mention that hugs release oxytocin? Well they do—which explains why Queen Elizabeth didn't recoil at Mrs. Obama's friendly gesture. For a few seconds the Queen of England let her better biology flow and it's nice to think that her crowned head rests a little easier for it.